Written by Drs. Carrie King & Suzanne Smith
Women Who Struggle With Body Image Learn These Messages Early in Life
My mother was always on a diet and complaining about how big she got after having us kids. My grandmother always pushed me to, “Eat! Eat!” and then spent dinner talking about my “fat” cousin Tali. My father wouldn’t buy me a bikini at age 5, and I knew why. My mom doted on my “skinny” brother, talking constantly about her battle to get food to stick to his ribs, and I envied the attention and his size. My father imitated blowing up a balloon whenever I asked for seconds.
Consider for a moment how these messages absorb into the skin, burrow paths to the heart, and make clear indentations on body image and self-worth. How would these messages continue to inform how you see yourself, what you eat, and how you feel when you do? Is it possible that you consciously or unconsciously transmit these same painful messages to your own children?
Harmful Messages Parents May Not Know They’re Sending
You may be very thoughtful when talking to your children about what they’re eating and their appearance but then slip when talking about yourself. We can be very thoughtful of avoiding the words “good” and “bad” when we talk about foods with our children, and then grab a handful of chips and say, “I’m cheating.” We inadvertently reinforce the idea that there is a right and public way to eat and a wrong and secret way to eat. Our seemingly light comments linking our own behaviors to our own appearance can be damaging: “I better stop there or I won’t look good in my dress tomorrow.”
Increasing Parental Awareness & Compassion for Our Own Body Image Issues
Growing up in a culture focused on beauty, thinness, and dieting is a challenge for all of us. As parents, it’s important to take the time to reflect on our own feelings about our bodies and the messages we’ve internalized through the years. Think back to how your own parents talked about eating and appearance. Recall your personal insecurities with your body as you grew up. Maybe you were focused on flabby arms, skinny legs, or simply not fitting into the uniform the way the other kids did. Maybe your own mother was always on fad diets or pointing out thin women she envied. These messages affect how we feel about our bodies from childhood and can affect us in unconscious ways throughout our lives.
Explore the thoughts you have as an adult about your body and eating. Most of us are highly critical about our own bodies, focusing on areas we believe are imperfect or “trouble spots.” Notice how you talk to yourself in your own quiet mind. Are you encouraging and complimentary about your body? Or are you critical and shaming? When you think about exercising, are you focused on feeling strong or punishing yourself for an indulgent dessert the night before? When you think about eating, are you focused on how the food will taste or how it will add weight or worsen your “trouble spots”?
Parents who are aware of their own inner thoughts on body image and eating are better able to filter the messages they want to give their children. When we speak to ourselves with body-positive messages, we are better able to transmit these healthy messages to our children. Our children are constantly forming messages about who they are how they are valued based on what we as parents say about them, ourselves, and others in our world. Learning to be more conscious and mindful about the messages we send will powerfully influence how our children feel about themselves. We want to send the message that we value people for qualities that are more important than appearance. The strategies below are intended to help you accomplish this goal of sending positive messages about body image and food.
Strategies to Build Your Daughter’s Healthy Body Image
- Talk about healthy eating habits as a family. Even if you choose to make a dietary change for yourself, talk about goals related to how you want to feel and what you want to do rather than weight you want to lose. You might say, “I’m going to have a yummy salad so I have good energy to play tag with you,” rather than “I really need to eat this salad to lose my spare tire.”
- Greet people in a welcoming way that does not include comments about appearance. Instead of saying, “Your hair looks great!” or “You look so young!” try saying “It’s so good to see you!” or “We missed you!” This demonstrates that we notice and value people for qualities other than appearance.
- Try to limit mirrors in your household wherever possible. Looking for something to fill a blank wall? Think art! Having many mirrors in the environment encourages a focus on appearance and how others see us rather than how we internally feel about ourselves.
- Be thoughtful about how you talk about others when they are not around. For example, avoid talking about others’ appearances to (or within earshot of) your children when those people are not around. Children learn a lot from what we do and don’t say when someone leaves the dinner table to go to the restroom. Instead, focus on the people who are present with you, ask a trivia question, and pass the appetizers.
- Enthusiastically express your values in qualities other than appearance. Think about the qualities you want to nurture in your own children. Stop expressing a value in small size and beauty over other characteristics. Talk first about how generous, forgiving, hard-working, or bold your daughter’s teammate is before you comment on her cuteness.
- Focus on fullness and satisfaction when determining the end of a meal or choice of a snack. This helps your child learn to notice his/her own body’s signals for having eaten enough. Focus less on the effects over-eating might have on body size or appearance and more on how the body feels when full.
- Teach children about foods that bring them energy (protein) and boost their immunity (fruits and vegetable) and that help them grow strong bones (dairy). Show them how to balance their choices throughout the day to feel healthy.
- Emphasize health rather than size when talking about our bodies. When you clip their fingernails or comment on how a cut has healed, take the opportunity to say: “You must be eating such healthy foods for your nails to grow so quickly, or your body to close up that cut so nicely.” In essence, link eating with living, not looking in the mirror.
- Do not label foods as “good” or “bad.” This offers a false dichotomy and appeals to the rigid thinking of individuals with eating and body image issues. Focus more on variety and moderation.
- Remove scales from easy-access areas. If you must keep a scale in your home, keep it tucked away behind the toilet bowl cleaner under the sink. Focusing on weight as a measure of health minimizes all the other important aspects of wellness such as good energy, strength, concentration, and emotional regulation.
Harness Your Parental Influence to Support Girls Who Love Their Bodies
Parents play a powerful role in shaping how a child views herself, her body, her self-worth. The less emphasis we place on physical appearance, the less likely our children will be to form unhealthy relationships with food and body image. The more consciously we parent our children to hear healthy, empowering messages, the more likely they will be to internalize those voices and develop positive feelings about themselves as adults.
If you find your child or teen is already struggling with body image and/or unhealthy eating patterns, it can be helpful to seek professional guidance from a therapist who specializes in these issues. The earlier you address these concerns, the better the outcome will be for the whole family.